Survivor host Jeff Probst explains the impetus for that huge merge twist
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Wednesday's episode of Survivor 41.
Survivor host Jeff Probst warned before season 41 began that they were going to take some big swings in the show's first installment back after a year off due to COVID, and they just took the biggest swing yet with this week's "merge" episode. Because there was no merge. Well, there kinda was. And there kinda wasn't. Allow us to explain.
Instead of the 12 remaining players all getting a new buff and a big feast and officially entering the merge phase of the game, the contestants drew rocks and were divided into two teams of five, with two other players (Naseer and Erika) having to sit out. The two new teams then competed in a challenge, with the winners receiving a feast and automatic entry to the merge, while the losers had to compete in an individual immunity competition, with one of them being voted out before the merge.
Ah, but it turns out that automatic entry to the merge was less than automatic. Because after the challenge winners selected Naseer to join them in the spoils of victory, it was revealed that Erika (who was banished to Exile Island) actually had a power that would allow her to completely flip the results of the challenge. Meaning she and the other losers would automatically make it to the merge, and the winners (and Naseer) would have to fight for their lives in the game. We'll have to wait until next week to see what decision Erika ultimately makes.
It was a massive twist with massive ramifications, so we tracked down Probst to get the inside scoop on how the twist came to be. We also asked him what he would do in Erika's position, as well as some other questions about the season so far.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's start with a moment of silence for the dearly departed. The cast is stacked with great personalities, and you've lost a few of them already. Since this season has been all about making tough choices, we're going to turn the tables on you and make you do the same! If I told you that you could only bring back one of the voted-out players so far to play again, whom would it be and why?
JEFF PROBST: Let me start by saying I just returned from watching Greta Van Fleet at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. So I am a bit amped up! They rocked it so hard! The sold-out house was on fire! I was really impressed. There is no doubt about it, rock is alive and well! So with that in mind, let me transition into Survivor…
This first question is a Survivor Sophie's choice, and I can't bear the thought. I told you, I love this group of players. I have no favorites. I hated every Tribal. I really did. But in the spirit of the question, let's say we decided that we were going to give all of the first five voted-out players a second shot. Here's a version of a twist that we might throw up on the whiteboard to consider:
At the start of the game, all the players would be told that the first five players voted out will have one chance to get back in the game. When that day arrived, we'd march them back in, just like the beloved Edge of Extinction twist. We then explain that they will compete together as a tribe in one epic challenge against six random players still remaining in the game. If they win, one of them will ultimately earn their way back into the game.
But this challenge requires six players, so they get to choose one player (still in the game) to join their new tribe. So they choose the player they think will most help them win the challenge. Then, one last twist to complicate matters. If they lose, then the player they chose to help them… is out of the game. Yeah. Gone.
Not saying we would do this twist, but that's one dangerous idea we might workshop if we decided we wanted to bring returning players back into the game!
Shout out to one of my favorite Survivor moments ever back on season 5 as we get to discuss another fake merge. There's obviously going to be a lot of talk about Erika and the hourglass potentially flipping the results of the challenge, but what intrigues me most about this twist is the general game mechanic of adding what is essentially an individual play-in contest just to get into the merge. Where did the impetus come from to shake this entire process up, and do you see this as a one-time thing (kind of like Survivor: Thailand) or are you more broadly rethinking the merge process?
From a broad perspective, all of the ideas for this season came during a crazy two-week period where we just totally reimagined the game. One of the big initial thoughts was that we wanted players to have to work harder around camp. That led to no food, loss of flint, smaller tribes, and only a few reward challenges. As this big idea took shape, we realized that the merge had always been a freebie in the sense that if you lasted long enough, you made the merge, and that meant you received a huge feast. So we dug in and decided to reframe the merge so that instead of "making the merge" you merely reach the "merge phase" of the game. Once you reach this phase, you earn the chance to compete to "make the merge." That was the big idea.
We then started exploring the idea of making the game play much more "dangerous." So when we applied this "dangerous" filter to the new merge idea, we landed on the second merge twist, which gives one player an historic amount of power: the ability to change history. The change history has been an idea we've kicked around for years. We've always loved it but it never felt right until this season. And once we talked about it, we knew we were going to commit to it.
For future players, I can't scream this loudly enough… the game is a monster. This isn't just a catchy phrase, it's a metaphor. You cannot waste time being frustrated because you don't like a twist. It's wasted and misplaced energy. You must continue to assess and adapt to everything that happens in the game. From changing alliances to bad weather to lack of food and historic twists. Every minute of every day. If you don't, the monster will devour you.
Will we do this exact thing or something like it again? Let me say it again… the game is a monster and it's only getting hungrier.
Let's go back and play another round of my favorite game: What Would Probst Do? Let's say you are one of six people eligible to be voted out next and just got sent to Exile Island. Any chance you do NOT smash that hourglass? Because I'm smashing that sucker as soon as you hand it to me.
When we were working through this twist, we debated this same question, and we never came to a consensus because it's so situational. The decision any player makes will fully depend on where they stand in the game and with the other players. In Erika's situation, going into the challenge she appears to be on the outs with her tribe. Then in a random draw of rocks, she drew one of the two rocks that forced her to sit out, which left her fate in the hands of others. They sent her to Exile, and now she has power in the game. So her decision will be based on that specific set of circumstances. Does she feel she can recover with her tribe by protecting them? Or does she go for broke, knowing that if she changes history her former tribe will be gunning for her from now on?
But imagine it was Danny and DeShawn who drew the rocks. One of them gets to stay, one of them has to go to Exile. Now maybe the decision for who to send to Exile isn't as easy. So let's say they play rock, paper, scissors and Danny loses and is sent to Exile. Now it's Danny who is in charge of the change history decision, but it's a very different situation. Danny may feel secure enough with his alliance that he knows he isn't in trouble, so he wants to help his alliance stay strong by letting them keep the immunity they earned.
My decision would be based on where I felt I stood in the game and my long-term plans for the people in my alliance. I'm not saying I wouldn't make a big move and shatter the hourglass, but it would only be after considering things like alliances and potential jury votes.
I was all in on the twist of forcing players to say super-goofy phrases at a challenge to activate three shared idols. Can you share exactly who came up with these phrases and how they were chosen, and if we might see something similar in the future? If not having to say phrases again, maybe just having to do something very publicly or out of the norm to get some sort of reward?
This idea started as a different idea that came from my buddy Doug Larson. Larson thought it would be fun if two players had to find a way to secretly meet in the jungle in order to activate an advantage without anyone knowing. HIs idea was that the first player had to mark an X on a tree and then the second player had to find the X. Then those two players had to figure out the identity of the other, so they sneak out in the middle of the night to pair their advantages and activate them.
We took that idea and merged it with our theme of Survivor 41 being about "dangerous fun!" This led to the more dangerous idea of bringing the "identity search" out in the open instead of in secret. We quickly landed on the twist of a player having to communicate to other players by saying a ridiculous phrase in front of everyone! We then asked all of our producers for ideas for phrases and just chose the ones we thought were the most absurd!
You were once again screaming like a lunatic at the challenge this week, and I would not have it any other way. But I'm worried about your voice, Jeff. Have you been digging deep into some herbal tea and honey to help protect the pipes?
Yeah, this is embarrassing. I think my ANNOYING YELLING!!! is simply the result of me being away from Survivor for too long during COVID. I forgot how to yell properly. It's that simple. It is possible to be excited and full of adrenaline and still not lose your voice. Rookie mistake. I blame only myself.
We're halfway through the season and heading into what seems like a REAL merge. What can you tease in terms of what to expect in the next phase of the game?
The back half of this season is just as strong as the first half! It's a boring answer… but more of the same. Great game play from strong players and definitely not the last big twist!
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